When couples decide they want therapy, they often come seeking help for financial, sexual, time management, or parenting issues. They have trouble agreeing on what to save and what to spend; even after finding common ground, couples can find conflict in discussing how to spend and save. Having different expectations for their sex life can lead to disagreements, inattention, and downright frustration that cause challenges in the relationship. Couples argue about how to spend their free time and with whom. Do they spend time together, apart, or a mix of the two? Do they visit her family or his? Do they hang with her friends, his friends, or mutual friends? If the couple becomes parents, they may argue about how to raise their children.

None of these issues matter; they are merely symptoms of an underlying problem. These conflicts arise when they try to “get” each other to do things they don’t want to do by criticizing, complaining, blaming, nagging, threatening, punishing, and even bribing the other into submission—the avenues of external control. Attempting to change someone with these behaviors will cause the other person to resist that control, further exacerbating the situation. The result is pain, anger, and frustration.

External control comes in four forms:

  • I want you to do something you don’t want to do.
  • You want me to do something I don’t want to do.
  • We both want each other to do things neither of us wants to do.
  • I’m trying to do something I don’t want to do mainly to please you.

In a lot of marriages, situations like these happen frequently, sometimes at alarming rates. No one likes to be controlled, and often, people aren’t aware they are attempting to control their partner. It’s the same for those being controlled; they will feel frustrated with their partner without being able to identify why. A common red flag is the phrase, “If you do ____, I’ll do ____.” It’s a pattern of punishment or bribery.

Using a controlling behavior is akin to smashing the concrete foundation of a relationship with a sledgehammer; the foundation cracks and eventually crumbles. For couples forever attempting to ‘get’ their partners to do, think, and be the way they want them to be, the problems will never go away. Individuals who only think about what they want in their relationship, without taking time to understand what the other person wants, will always find themselves butting heads. The person has stopped thinking as a couple and is in battle mode, fighting for one thing: the accomplishment of their individual objectives.

Putting the needs of the relationship above your own is key, and this solution comes through listening to one another—really listening—in a genuine attempt to understand where the other person is coming from. It is easy to work together when you learn to accept your partner for who he or she is, offering support and encouragement to help your partner accomplish the things he or she wants to do. This true understanding and acceptance will aid in developing the willingness and skill to negotiate differences together. The aforementioned conflicts can be resolved with a mindset toward accomplishing the best solution for the good of the relationship, not necessarily one’s individual desires. What are you need to understand better?

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